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Schools Monday: The Most--And Least--Bang for the Buck

Everybody knows--or thinks they know--that the D.C. public schools waste more money than most school systems have ever seen. The common mythology is that the city's schools spend more for less than any other system in the land. That's not quite the case, but close enough--the District's overall spending per student is third-highest in the country, according to the Post's investigative series on the system. And the D.C. schools rank first in the land in the portion of spending that's devoted to administration and last on the portion that goes to instruction.

But you sort of knew that. What you may not have known is that in a Forbes magazine analysis of spending by 100 school districts across the country, it was the Alexandria city schools in northern Virginia that got the least bang for their buck--that is, they spent the most per student as compared to student performance. Forbes weighed per student spending against college entrance exam scores and graduation rates. The result put Alexandria in last place, with $11,404 in spending per student against only 73 percent of students graduating from high school (this is one issue in addition to her poor handling of her DUI arrest that helped drive the new school board in Alexandria to get rid of Superintendent Rebecca Perry.)

Another Washington area school district landed right near the very top of the Forbes list. Montgomery County schools are in fifth place in the nation by this measure, with $8,824 in per student spending, but a 91.4 percent graduation rate.

The D.C. schools, by comparison, came up in 95th place, third from the bottom, with $10,473 per student spending and a 73 percent graduation rate.

Now hold on, you say--these numbers are very much skewed by the population of a school district. Doesn't affluence and education level of the families in each district play a huge role in determining graduation rates and college entrance exam scores? Sure, there's no better predictor of your performance in school and on tests than who your parents are. And both Alexandria and the District have disproportionately high populations of kids who are living in poverty. But Montgomery's school population doesn't fit the popular stereotype of preppy kids in Potomac and Bethesda, either.

In fact, the Montgomery County system includes one of the largest concentrations of immigrant children of any high-performing system in the country. The Montgomery public schools population is only 41 percent white, and in the southeastern swath of the county where income levels are lowest, 80 percent of students are minorities and more than half the students qualify for free lunch--meaning their parents live in poverty. Even in the more affluent half of the county, 13 percent of students qualify for free lunch and 43 percent come from minority families.

So demographics are not entirely determinative. Rigor of program has a lot to do with results. As MoCo superintendent Jerry Weast says, as the system's population changed, "We didn't bury the rigor, so we got a quality outcome." By requiring students to meet standards well above Maryland's state standards, Montgomery has produced results: Across the country, only 25 percent of 8th grade students are enrolled in algebra or some higher level of math. In Montgomery, that number has jumped from 36 percent in 1999 to 49 percent last year. And as the Post's Daniel DeVise reported last month, in MoCo, both black and Hispanic students outperform the national average for all students in the number of students scoring a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams.

Money can of course be helpful in making schools better, but it really doesn't have much to do with outcomes or the classroom experience. And as the records show in both Alexandria and the District, money can be downright useless.

By Marc Fisher |  July 23, 2007; 7:45 AM ET
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MCPS in the house.

Posted by: MoCo Raised | July 23, 2007 8:43 AM

Your cost per student numbers sound low. I suspect you're only looking at the operating budget and excluding the capital budget.

Posted by: stewart | July 23, 2007 8:45 AM

The cost per pupil numbers seem low because the figures are from 2004 (I think).

MCPS did something years ago that many school systems (including Fairfax County) are still not embracing and that is they stopped blaming the parents and poverty and started looking for solutions. There are hundreds of successful schools in the US in high poverty areas who are helping kids achieve regardless of their socio-economic background. MCPS has been focusing on narrowing the minority achievement gap and strengthening the middle school programs.

Parents are given a strong role in MCPS and Weast and his staff encourage the educators to participate in decision making. Lots of voices and outside the box thinking are what other local school districts could use as well.

Posted by: takebackourschools | July 23, 2007 9:07 AM

Marc - No column about DC's decision to nix a $200 million investment in a soccer stadium in SE? Thought you would have been all over this, seeing as you're not a fan of gov't financing private team owners. More $ for education.

Posted by: SoccerStadium | July 23, 2007 10:06 AM

And the 73% graduation rate doesn't sound right. Is that just the senior class? I think the # of kids who start, say, 7th grade and then go on to graduate would be even lower. I bet it's more like 50% of the potential students from middle school on who go to get a HS diploma.

Posted by: DistrictMom | July 23, 2007 10:26 AM

"We didn't bury the rigor, so we got a quality outcome."

DCPS ought to read this statement 100 times over, and then act on it. Hold kids accountable for their work, and have consequences. And, the consequences shouldn't be against the teachers who have the balls to work to standards many of us took for granted when we were in school. Like turning your class work in on time. If it's late you get a penalty, not a chance at the end of the semester to turn it all in again as "make up work."

Posted by: sousa bridge | July 23, 2007 10:31 AM

These comparisons are really so simplistic - DC within the last couple of years was compared by the Post to other local jusrisdictions and didn't spend more than they did and less than two others.

We don't have the benefit of getting money from a state budget for our special education students- we pay it all from our own budget- an example is ny city recently got an additional $700,000,000 from the state.

We need to face the fact that yes we have to raise standards, that is what Superintendent Janey was doing with new curriculum standards based on MA. standards. We need to add money for teacher salaries and for continuing education for our teachers. We need money for art and music classes in the schools and we need to make up for years of neglect of our schools.

We are also funding students in charter schools in DC and when you do this you add to costs for additional administrative and basic costs.

Let's stop comparing apples and oranges when we compare school systems and childrens needs. A good education is expensive- just look at what the highest scoring districts on the international exams are spending to see what it really costs

Posted by: peter | July 23, 2007 10:47 AM

The numbers in that article are 100% garbage and not worthy of being the basis of a serious discussion on educational value. Every state reports test scores and graduation rates a different way; there is no easy way to compare them.

Posted by: hoos30 | July 23, 2007 11:05 AM

I would say somewhat less than 100% garbage--after all dollars are dollars and a high school diploma is a high school diploma. It is still the basic criteria for most colleges and the miltary to accept a candidate.

What is interesting to me is that Montgomery County is performing at a high level objectively, but we are still being stressed by No Child Left Behind and it a constant struggle to meet the constantly shifting targets of the bill. Likewise, some of our schools with greater percentages of students meeting proficient and advanced on state standards are having as much difficulty with NCLB as some of our schools with lower percentages--or even schools in other localities with lower levels of achievement.

Posted by: Chris | July 23, 2007 11:51 AM

The only thing that is truly amazing is that the citizens of DC and Alexandria aren't clamoring for vouchers or other means of enacting a more open market for education. At this point, it would be cheaper and easier to completely shut down DC schools and sell the buildings than to try to fix that system of beaurocracy and corruption. Unfortunately, it's those who can't afford private schools whose children suffer.

Posted by: LibertarianLeaning | July 23, 2007 12:01 PM

No, the nixing of the soccer stadium does not mean more money for schools. In fact, it means less.

Somebody has to pay the taxes so we can spend all this money on the schools.

That money comes from developments like the massive one planned around the soccer stadium.

Or, you could have yet more public housing on that site. But then you'd have to choose between paying for public housing (and the stunning police, fire, and health cost associated with that) and the public schools.

I'm sick to death of people saying development projects take money from schools. It's simply not true, especially in the long term. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Posted by: Hillman | July 23, 2007 1:14 PM

Neat trick, going into detail with the demographics of Mont Co and not with Alexandria or D.C. You also neglected to mention the "large number of foreign-born students" in the ACPS, as described in the Forbes article. Additional ESL and special ed classes require additional costs. But details are uncomfortable; much easier to bury the rigor.

Posted by: tcgraduate | July 24, 2007 9:40 AM

Hey, where are Fenty's kids going to go to school next year? I can't help but think that it's the height of irony that Fenty claims to care about the DC Public Schools but thus far has not enrolled his own children in them.

Posted by: scorm | July 24, 2007 3:19 PM

I recommend that any reporter go to 825 North Capitol Street and hang out for a day. Employee attitudes are ridiculous.

Posted by: KTB | July 27, 2007 9:44 AM

I recommend that any reporter go to 825 North Capitol Street and hang out for a day. Employee attitudes are ridiculous.

Posted by: KTB | July 27, 2007 9:45 AM

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